Ahead of her attendance at EFFA 2019 for our Women With Impact Industry Insider session, we chat with Director/Writer/Producer Tosca Looby (Magical Land of Oz) about the responsibilities of making natural history documentaries in the age of the climate crisis, resisting 'white-washing' the hard-hitting issues, and the lessons learnt from making international co-productions!

In the face of climate change, what role do you think environmental and natural history filmmaking plays in impacting the public's perceptions and attitudes towards the environment?

I am sorry that in so many ways the world of natural history film making has only recently realised its responsibility in revealing what the natural world really looks like… not what the audience is purportedly imagining it looks like. We have a lot of catch up and unfortunately the audience has run ahead of broadcasters - demanding the facts rather than the fantasy. 

What's a recent example of a documentary film or television production which you think had a strong impact?

A film I saw recently, and consider important, is Sea Of Shadows, about the work of undercover agents (and Mexican navy) attempting to save the last remaining vaquitas - a tiny, beautiful whale - which has been decimated as by catch in the illegal fishing syndicates working through the Sea of Cortez.

It was about a last-ditch attempt to save a species, but which has come too late and is not enough to deliver this species from extinction in the face of economic powers. For me, the vaquita could be so many species and the film is a lesson in why we can’t wait until it’s a minute to midnight before we put a rescue plan into action.

There are many species across Australia who are on the same trajectory as the Vaquita - including iconic species like the koala. It’s amazing and devastating to me that we can’t learn from the lessons of species lost. 

Equally, I think 2040 is such an important film because it speaks very broadly and offers agency via tangible solutions. It appeals to the truth that we all need to jump on this train if we’re to reach a desirable destination in the future. It should be compulsory viewing.  

You have witnessed a change towards capturing the damage taking place in the world around us, as opposed to capturing the beauty of the natural world. Can the two go together, and does this approach help audiences engage with the subject matter?

I recently saw the Antarctic episode of the new Seven Continents series by BBC NHU. I resist pointing to these films as the pinnacle of what we’re all trying to achieve because they, most particularly, have taken so long to capture the damage of our world as well as the beauty. But finally, they seem to have found a way to walk this heady path.

Their recent Antarctic film is extraordinarily beautiful of course - it captures animals with the intimacy and ‘I felt like I was there’ power that the BBC NHU is famous for.

But from the very start, it also talks about the fragility of this environment and how it is changing too rapidly for the species who have survived there for eons. Their work is indicative of the fact that this now the only choice for us as film makers.

Audiences don’t want to be duped or lulled into a false sense of reality. They already know so much, and a film that only records beauty feels like a whitewash.

So we need to get better and better at saying ‘look at how extraordinary this is - and what is at stake’. We also need to offer up solutions and not be afraid to call out the big polluters, the economic interests and the politicking which will not budge to halt this climate crisis. It doesn’t just mean activist films, it means being clever and funny and beguiling. 

You recently made Magical Land of Oz - the first blue chip natural history series to be commissioned by the ABC in two decades. How and why did this come about, and how did you go about planning a shoot of such a huge geographical scale?

It took two years to get the deal completed for Magical Land of Oz. So it took as long to make the film as it did to make the deal!

It’s so hard to get a budget like that in Australia but we had a working relationship with PBS (US public broadcaster) having made several successful series for them. Their interest triggered the BBC and then the ABC with Screen Australia critically backing us from the beginning. We made the series as a co-production with Oxford Scientific Films in London. 

We spent months in pre-production to work out the stories we wanted to tell, then had to compromise on the basis of cost and the seasons within which we could film. Each story had a very limited number of filming days (compared to a BBC Natural History Unit production - which has four times the budget and filming days), so the most vital thing was creating strong relationships with people on the ground who could guide us to well-known behaviours, reliable aggregations of animals and habitats we could reach as part of coordinated shoots in regional areas. We then had several DOPs we were working with in different areas, so we didn’t miss seasonal opportunities. 

We edited the series in London but also brought an episode back to Australia for editing. It’s never easy doing international co-productions and this series was no exception.

We learnt a lot of important lessons which will influence the way we do it next time! The track lay and composing were done in London, but the narration record was all done in Australia - with completely different scripts for the BBC and ABC versions. We were determined to ensure the ABC version sounded like it was made by Australians, for Australians, and this was only possible if the scripts became entirely separate entities. 

What's been your biggest learning in making environmental and natural history documentaries?

That it might be hard to measure any good you’re doing - but that we are all chipping away and that’s important. 

The environmental issues we encounter in every habitat can become overwhelming and it’s easy to feel swamped by a sense of inertia and disengagement in the general population, but I also meet so many great people doing great things. Often, they’re really quiet achievers and I am eternally grateful for every one of them. They keep me keeping on! 

What do you think women filmmakers in particular bring to environmental documentary making? 

I don’t think gender determines the kind of film you’re going to make. I think men can make great human tales which are nuanced and sensitive. I think women can make zombie thrillers. Having said that, I work with lots of women and I love the smarts, humour and determination they bring to what we do together. People working in this genre, both men and women, tend to have smaller egos and more curious brains than many other genres of television — which makes the work a whole lot more interesting. 

What are you working on next?

I’ve got a number of projects in train now. I would love to do another big natural history series but it’s going to take time to raise all the cash again. In the meantime, I’m doing social documentary - with a particular focus on women - at the same time as developing a range of natural history projects including blue-chip, presenter led etc. 

Hear from Tosca at EFFA’s Women With Impact Industry Insider session, 4pm Sunday October 27 at State Library of Victoria Village Roadshow Theatrette.

This session was made possible with the support of the Environment and Media Research Program, Monash University School of Media, Film and Journalism.